IISc – first impressions

Nice trees. Very nice trees. That is the first thing you notice when you come to IISc. It is an island of green in a sea of gray concrete, beautiful and soothing at the same time.

The second thing you notice is relaxed the place is. Nothing of the ‘publish or perish’ problems that seem to plague friends studying in US universities. Consequently, the number of papers that IISc outputs in a year is not very high and I frankly think nobody should give a damn about it.

Another thing one notices is the number of people from Karnataka here, which is close to despairingly low. But our lunch table has enough interesting people, so not really too much of an issue from my perspective. The profs are really good, atleast in our department, students are quite capable with some exceptions.

The high point of the last month has been two talks, one by Ramaswamy Iyer and another by Uzramma, both questioning what is defined as ‘development’ today – the former in the context of big dams and the latter on the cotton cloth industry. IISc and its neighbors are able to get some really good people for talks, which is an advantage of being a famous institution and all that. However, one thing that immediately comes into focus is that the world of the people in IISc is completely cut-off from the real world, with people living in their own private wonderlands. Thus, Uzramma was given suggestions to do HRD, improve efficiency using solar power and such things when her talk focused mainly on generating a livelihood, which was being denied to many in India today. Iyer’s call for academic institutions to focus on water science will probably be lost on professors and students intent on keeping up with the latest topics in vogue in the West.

There is no dearth of a feeling that IISc is doing the country a great favor by its existence, though such a notion can be very easily questioned. The main contribution of  IISc seems to be the material enrichment of its alumni, all getting huge salaries by virtue of their ‘brand name’. And absorbing lot of CO2 and dust, thank you very much. It does not seem too interested in the material basis of its own existence, with lights and computers running 24/7 and not a single building that I have noticed implementing rain water harvesting, and all this with a Centre for Sustainable Technologies (CST) on campus!!

There are places which are supposed to do interesting work, like the Divecha Centre for Climate Change and CiSTUP, but the imperative for the scientists here to deliver information and insight that empowers society as a whole seems to be missing. Science appropriate to our local context seems to have taken a back seat to cutting edge science which has no relevance to the hawker on the street. Is it possible to create science which is both cutting edge and socially relevant ? yes. One does not start out trying to be socially relevant, since that restricts the mindset of the scientist, but a complete lack of knowledge of problems facing our society which could lead to interesting science does not seem to faze the people here.

Not that the people lack awareness – there are amateur theoreticians and activists in every field here, be it politics, culture or linguistics. In that sense, IISc is a typical intellectual institution – people supporting Hindutva and Marxism and every other ism exist side by side, staying away from each other and looking down at everyone else who obviously have an ideology inferior to the one they hold dear. There are grand theoretical discussions and debates, but obviously none of that matters to the kid who had to leave school to work in the xerox centre, copying books he cannot even hope to understand. The fact that students and faculty of a centrally funded institution have a strong social obligation seems lost here. There may be people justifying that their social obligation is to produce original reasearch, i.e, publish papers, but Amulya Reddy might beg to disagree.

Like someone said, the poor have only the truth to fight with. Scientists, as seekers of the same truth must use their skills to help the cause of those who do not have anyone to look upto for help. Whether each student of IISc is doing her bit to work towards this end, is upto her and her conscience.

13 thoughts on “IISc – first impressions”

  1. Hi Joy,

    A wonderful and insightful article. I am writing on behalf of Voices, the IISc Student’s Newsletter. We would like to publish this post of yours in our next issue and seek your permission. Kindly mail us your reply to voices.iisc@gmail.com. Looking forward to a positive response.

    Madhurima Das

  2. “In that sense, IISc is a typical intellectual institution – people supporting Hindutva and Marxism and every other ism exist side by side, staying away from each other and looking down at everyone else who obviously have an ideology inferior to the one they hold dear. There are grand theoretical discussions and debates, but obviously none of that matters to the kid who had to leave school to work in the xerox centre, copying books he cannot even hope to understand.”

    Interestingly I was at the talk you were talking about. First and foremost, the intellectual culture you seem to mention is severely lacking in IISc. There are far better institutes in India like JNU ,Delhi University and Jadavpur which are fare more intellectualish in its outlook than IISc. Even a reasonably undergraduate college like St. Stephens or St Xaviers or Presidency would be far superior in this regard. Regarding Marxists, there are less than a handful of marxists on campus. I don’t think the number of people who are interested in marxism at any point exceeds more than 10 in a campus of 2000.
    Regarding the comment about boy at xerox centre argument, I’m not completely cynical of having high brow ideological discussions either. I mean its easy to give him a notebook and feel good about it – but there are more fundamental questions. Is he the only one who has to struggle? Are there larger ‘invisible’ forces and systemic failuires which lead to the situation of the guy at the xerox centre (is’nt his predicament something symptomatic of the whole class)? Can we really address them with local level acts? can acting locally have any impact on a system that thrives of exploitaiion,inequality and injustice apart from imperialism? I don’t have any answers. I’m not advocating local level inaction either. But my point is that there are larger questions to be asked, whose relavance cannot be dismissed. A lot of fundamental improvements have been brought about by movements which seeked to ask basic questions about the structure. Be it our own independence movement,russian revolution,cuban revolution,communist movement of kerala or the naxalite/maoist movement.

  3. hi
    nice to know that you are interested in social relevance of science. though there are very few opportunities to pursue it considering the mindset of faculties and overall academic environment. even the faculties who seem socially aware pursue the cutting edge variety. though there are a few exceptions. BTW there is one area where rain harvesting is done in campus. near satish dhawan auditorium , the KSCST (i guess am confusing the name with other building near by) building. the parks around it bear the board , “the park is maintained by rain harvested water”. Though i agree no depts or other centres has it.( as far as i know)

    civil engg dept

  4. @prathamesh: lack of political ideology does not point in any way to intellectual sterility. Intellectuals need not be only of the left-right-centre mold.
    IMO, it is not lack of intellectualism that is the issue here or anywhere else, but the apparent insularity of each group of intellectuals. Ideology is a logically consistent picture of a somewhat illogical reality, and care must be taken to learn from all.

    While indulging in ‘deep’ questions may be of use, activism is more of an experiential thing than an intellectual one. Working at fundamental questions must happen bottom up, rather than most ideologues’ top-down approach. Only then can it be equitable and relevant.

  5. I don’t think I don’t think lack of political ideology with intellectual sterility. Though I’m not if there is anything called ‘lacking a political ideology’. Everything has its own politics. Including lack of political ideology is itself a political ideology (which more often than not is an endorsement of status quo politics). I also agree that left-right-centre classification is too simplistic. For instance, where would one place Lohia? My only point was about the lack of vibrant intellectual culture in IISc.

    I am also not sure how you can deduce that a particular group of ‘intellectuals’ are insular or they don’t adapt of ground realities blinded by their ideologies. There are a bunch of core ideologues all across waiting to dispense gyaan about the world over a chai. But on an average thats not the cases, most people with some experience on ground do learn that the nuances of ground are different from rigidities and consistencies of ideology, but at the same time some theoretical framework is essential to get a broader picture and connect the dots. Even Gandhi had his own view of economic structures. Even in the case of party maoists ,those accused the most of ideological dogmatism, there has been active engagement with issues on ground.

    I also find the whole demarcation of people into intellectuals and activists as misleading. Where would you place Jean Dreze, the man behind india’s most path breaking economic policy since independence who on one hand did loads of ground work and on the other backed it with theoretical engagement about questions on democracy and freedom. Where would you place K Balagopal, the human rights activist,marxist and mathematician? He fought cases against police atrocities during naxal operations on one hand and even left an academic career for that and at the same time has over 50+ publications in EPW giving a marxist critique of state actions . I don’t see how you can so easily conclude that those engaging in ‘theoretical’ discussions on campus are completely cut off from ground activism or that they work from top bottom, without knowing most of them.

    Activism is definitely an experiential thing. But the questions about which kind of activism is essential and needed and how to go about it need some thought? I am not sure if essential changes can be brought about by activism which does not seek to fundamentally dismantle existent power structures.To take a cue from your example. If you talk about xerox centre, one can point out yeshwantpur in the backyard which has a large chunk of child labour population working in far more hospitable conditions. If one talks about yeshwantpur, one can bring into notice north karnataka and on. The point is that there is enormous poverty and not all of it is incidental. There are forces beyond those of the control of these individual participants that result in their situation. A stray ‘good intention or deed’ is not going to be any effective. How does one actively strive to change or dismantly these forces? I don’t have any answers, but the question still remains.

    Lets not forget that even a movement like Narmada Bachao Andolan, has at its heart a fundamental question about the myth of ‘development’, which only added to their work on ground.

  6. Again, it is not being blinded to ground realities but trying to interpret them from a specific viewpoint that is the issue. It is not that theoretical perspectives are useless, but how useful is a single one to understand reality without bias is questionable. I meant insularity from each other’s ideology, not from ground reality. I have felt misgivings from both social scientists and activists about the other kind, so even if it is misleading, it is present. If you feel activism and theory go hand in hand, I welcome it.

    I definitely feel there are enough people around here who actively engage with Indian philosophy, new and old, among other things. To convert everything to a power struggle and then accuse them of supporting the status quo does not do justice to their world view.

    1. 1) I am not sure how Indian philosophy fits in here. I think even the notion of indian philosophy needs to be deconstructed further considering that there is no indian philosophy as such , but philosophies. I think there are schools of thought which originated in India, which are extremely insightful with respect to human conditions and questions about the nature of self et al. But I’m not sure whether they have any relevance here considering that we are engaging in a form of social critique here and we assume all that one can about existence of material world,social processes and society et al. Even those who interested in Indian philosophy, possibly read it on computers whose cabinets were built from steel ,which was possibly mined after murder and evacuation of aboriginal tribals by the police on behalf of government or corporations .To quote a friend of mine who is a faculty at RRI:- “Firstly, no one in any society grows up to
      22 years old and remain politically unaware. Their political naivete mostly means
      that have accepted the existing norm without ever analysing it.”

      Except for those living a hand to mouth existence, where analysis can only be a luxury.Using a slightly refined version of webers thesis on sociology of religion, certain theoretical frameworks become popular among sections of society whose see it as a potential to fulfill their self interests. Like the role, calvinism played for capitalism. Most students on campus interested in Indian philosophy, tend to come from specific sections of society with respect to caste,class and religion. Dig them a bit on issues like reservation or conversions and voila, ‘detachment’ from politics and material world suddenly seems like all book talk. The point here is that, they don’t rise about sociological or political analysis.

      2) I don’t understand how those discussing marxism or interested in marxist theory become headed ideologues who are insular from each other’s perspective. Marx is among the most important social thinkers in history. So are Weber,Durkheim and Foucault. You need to understand that many in today’s generation(post globalisation) engage with marxism because a lot of sociological and economic changes around them could be extremely well explained in terms of marxian and neo marxian framework(even critics of orthodox marxism like beteille vouch for its relevance). But I don’t think anyone(except the most heady ideologues who are few in between) believes that it is the only theory to be employed to explain social processes. A marxist economist I know, engaged with upanishads to help him reframe the notion of self ,as central dogma in neoliberal economics. Even much of marxist practises in India, like austere living or hunger strikes have less to do with marxism and more to do with Gandhi.On the other hand, you have a trotskyist turned hindutvawadi like Swapan Dasgupta, who tries to rationalise gujarat riots as a ‘class war’. Globalisation brought a plethora of movements and ideologies together against neoliberalism. Where Gandhians like sandeep pandey campaign for CPI(ML)-Liberation. Maoists and Medha Patkar together tirade against Nandigram.Keynasians and Gandhians together work on RTI. Unfortunately, Hindutva on the other hand, has very little to contribute in terms of understanding of society and its processes. It never really took off as an intellectual project after Deen Dayal Upadhyaya and his Integral Humanism. Even now, like its supporters, its caught in a contradiction of swadeshi v/s open market system.

      3) I did’nt deny that there are sections of social theorists(mostly arm chair culture theory kind) and activists who disdain each other. But I’m not sure if its large enough to generalize(most of them I am acquianted with only complement each other). Been acquianted with For instance, to chattisgarh issue, its a coalition of activists and academics, which has been putting up a front against government atrocities. Nandini Sundar, an anthropologist at DSE, along with Ram Guha were behind the PIL. Ground level activists like Himanshu Kumar have a rather sound understanding of theory. Even Uzramma is extremely interested in foucault and anarcho-syndicalist theories.

  7. Well, knowing people who remain ‘detached’ from political issues even when probed about burning ones, I would beg to differ about the first point. The individual can be a point of departure for a social theory as easily as class or caste or religion or community, IMO.

    Again, if you are the kind who can see beyond marxism, fine, I have no issues with it! Theory is an excellent way to make sense of the world, like I said previously, but one must transcend it to get a true picture. My main issue, if you notice in the post, was not about theory, but a lack of activity after theorizing. While I neither prescribe Marxism or Hindutva (or any other theory), I see that each has something to offer and try to make sense of what I perceive. It is obvious that the final theory is not what matters, but what motivated it and how it got formulated. That, for me is the major takeaway from any theory rather than the theory itself.

    Valuing justice while looking with disdain with those who value say, beauty, more than justice is a personal issue rather than a problem with society or the world, methinks.

  8. I don’t think there is any theory or a coherent intellectual worldview called hindutva. Its loosely used to denote a certain form of identity politics without a theoretical core that arose after 1980’s. Precisely why I think its erroneous to equate marxism with hindutva.
    I am simply clueless about how you can allege that there is a lack of activity on behalf of a certain ‘intellectual class’ after theorising. My whole point is what do you know about the left wingers or their activities to claim that they don’t match up their theoretical wanking with ground level work? [ The talk by Uzramma was organised by the leftwing group on campus]. I don’t know if you know this, but some of the people who have been actively trying to get the lalgarh issue(from the local perspective as opposed to the state narrative) into public eye from ground, were oldtime left wingers of campus. Many of them are extremely active in anti SEZ struggle’s in bengal and elsewhere.

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